Geology, glacier retreat and permafrost degradation as controlling factors of slope instabilities in a high-mountain rock wall: the Monte Rosa east face
The Monte Rosa east face, Italian Alps, is one of the highest flanks in the Alps (2200–4500 m a.s.l.). Steep hanging glaciers and permafrost cover large parts of the wall. Since the end of the Little Ice Age (about 1850), the hanging glaciers and firn fields have retreated continuously. During recent decades, the ice cover of the Monte Rosa east face experienced an accelerated and drastic loss in extent. Some glaciers have completely disappeared. New slope instabilities and detachment zones of gravitational mass movements developed and enhanced rock fall and debris flow activity was observed. This study is based on multidisciplinary investigations and shows that most of the detachment zones of rock fall and debris flows are located in areas, where the surface ice disappeared only recently. Furthermore, most of these detachment zones are located in permafrost zones, for the most part close to the modelled and estimated lower boundary of the regional permafrost distribution. In the view of ongoing or even enhanced atmospheric warming and associated changes it is therefore very likely that the slope instabilities in the Monte Rosa east face will continue to represent a critical hazard source.